By Olga Rosales Salinas
Representation of POC stories and storytelling isn’t just crucial for underrepresented communities. It can serve as the lens through which cultural uniqueness becomes relatable to a larger audience. This type of representation in the arts is why I love the arts. A poem might consist of five stanzas but tell a story of millennia; likewise, a playwright can retell a story from Greek mythology through the lens of modern-day Chicano culture and make that story feel like personal truth.
The play “Oedipus El Rey,” and the playwright, Luis Alfaro have had this power in my life. I saw that particular play in 2010 at San Francisco’s Magic Theater and was inspired by how the playwright portrayed the Latino community and how relatable Greek mythology could be.
The actors in that play, the language, the phoenix rising, and the power of a protagonist and antagonist who looked like my family solidified me as a forever fan of Alfaro’s. When I think about the themes in his work I feel a strong connection because they are the themes I grew up with on the Central Coast of California: immigration, farmwork, religion, exploitation, poverty, and everything that surrounds Latinos in Watsonville, Salinas, and the Salinas Valley.
The story, my story, the first-generation story, the immigrant story, and the lives of farm-working families in theater are relatively rare, considering how many people identify as such. Seeing these storylines highlighted at Magic Theater in San Francisco made me fall in love with theater because it made me fall in love with where I came from. That’s the power of representation. That’s why it’s important.
Alfaro grew up in Delano, and his work and art reflect his upbringing and culture. In 1997, he received a MacArthur Genius Foundation Fellowship; the following year, he won the National Hispanic Playwright Competition Prize. He is currently an associate professor in the School of Dramatic Arts at the University of Southern California. His latest play, “The Travelers,” is now on stage in San Francisco.
Kinan Valdez is cast in the San Francisco show. Valdez’ family founded El Teatro Campesino, an institution dedicated to the life of immigrant farm workers and their stories precisely in Alfaro’s hometown. During the Delano grape strike, El Teatro’s founder, Luis Valdez, approached César Chávez with the idea to do theater for the campesinos, an idea that became a reality in the ‘60s and not only continues to this day, but has inspired many other playwrights to write about the immigrant farmworker experience.
Alfaro was interviewed about “The Travelers” for Voices of Monterey Bay. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ORS: I was excited about talking to you because back when I saw “Oedipus El Rey,” I was moved by a scene in that play that has stayed with me for more than 13 years. It was a scene where your main character ripped up a Bible. It rocked me to my core, taking me back to growing up religious. Watching someone do that to a Bible was shocking. So yes, when I heard about your new play “The Travelers,” I jumped.
LA: I saw an unhoused woman do that same thing to a Bible one day in Los Angeles. She was saying, “We are not in this book! I am not in this book! You are not in this book!” Then she began ripping the pages out. It was shocking to me as well.
ORS: I was reading about your religious upbringing and background, both in Pentecostalism and Catholicism, which makes that scene in the play even more dramatic. Can you speak to that and other religious ideas in your work?
LA: I write about California and California stories. My family comes from Delano, so I write about farm work culture but also the culture of the Central Valley. I write about faith a lot because it’s taboo in our culture. How do you talk about faith? I write about Chicano culture and about being on both sides of the border. And about how we speak in Spanglish.
California is so tied to the land. It’s where the rest of the country comes and drops off.
ORS: How much spirituality do we find in “The Travelers”?
LA: You’ll find a lot of spirituality, yet it’s not a religious play. It’s a play about six men in a monastery in Grangeville, between Hanford and Fresno, with a population of 486 people. I focused on an actual Catholic order — a real religious order. What happens is that the order is being taken apart by the Catholic church. They’re taking away their money, and a lot of what is happening in the state at the time is that many schools are closing, and the parishes are closing. The support that the Catholic church used to give has dwindled …
ORS: As a playwright you insert your own experience into your characters. Is there any one character that is more “you” than the other characters?
LA: I try to speak life into each of the characters from my experience. So maybe they’re not me, but they’re my family. Some of the conversations might have stemmed from a conversation I had with a cousin once or a moment that makes it into the play.
ORS: How does the play start? Set the scene for us.
LA: The six men come to the monastery for different reasons without the best spiritual intentions. One day a man, Brother Juan, comes in from a bar fight … and he falls on their floor. He stays with the order and might be the most spiritual among them. The most spiritual person might be the least among us. It’s a story about “who gets called to lead? Who are the people who get to have an interior life … a transformative life?”
ORS: So the men in the order are trying to decide if Brother Juan can stay with them. Why is that decision hard for them?
LA: Yes, and they’re out of resources so things are hard. The Catholic church has cut them off and they’re really desperate. Brother Brian insists that Brother Juan will stay. Soon enough he’ll discover Brother Ogie who has lived in a bathtub his whole life. Yes, there’s a bathtub. The men are the most vulnerable in a bathtub. It’s a play full of confessionals.
ORS: This story seems to be about redemption and community for a group of men who would otherwise be very lonely.
LA: Yes, I’m also talking about what has happened to us during the pandemic. I considered my experience as a professor during COVID as well as the experience of my students. While writing this play, I thought about students who had to have their entire college experience on Zoom. They experienced a lot of anxiety and resentment. This Zoom box was my life during the pandemic. So this is my COVID play.
I’m not sure if this is true for you, because you’re from Watsonville, but for me I grew up with so much family … and that’s what theater feels like for me. Having uncles, aunts, tíos, tias, and primos was never feeling alone — I was always in community. And I feel like the playhouse and the artist community in my life are the same.
Written By Luis Alfaro
Directed by Catherine Castellanos
FEBRUARY 15 – MARCH 12th, 2023 @ Magic Theater in San Francisco
“The Travelers” is running at Magic Theater now with an extension until March 12. Get your tickets here.
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